Smashing career choice
Jennifer Godfrey is at centre of things for particle physics
Jennifer Godfrey has studied at UFV, UBC, and SFU, and liked UFV for the grad-school–type experience she got while still an undergraduate.
By Anne Russell
You could say that for a particle physicist, the chance to work at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, is like a pilgrimage, something every young particle physicist should aspire to do, and that most achieve. It’s certainly the best place to mix with other particle physicists from around the world.
UFV alumna Jennifer Godfrey (BSc ’06) has travelled to the CERN facilities six times as part of her work on the ATLAS project through her graduate studies at Simon Fraser University.
She joins 2,900 physicists from 166 institutions in 37 countries in her work on the ATLAS project, a particle-detection experiment designed to observe phenomena that involve highly massive particles that might shed light on new theories of particle physics.
As a particle physicist, Jennifer studies matter at its most minute. She spends days at the computer, analyzing data to search for answers about a dimension that we cannot easily see. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a huge machine that lies in a tunnel 27 km in circumference, as much as 175 metres (17 storeys) beneath the Franco-Swiss border.
While Jennifer was in Geneva and on shift in November, scientists on the ATLAS project at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) used the collider to smash subatomic particle beams together at 2.36 tera-electron volts, the highest energies ever reached in a laboratory at that time (the record has since been broken again in March).
She says that particle physicists around the world were elated when the accelerator did its job.
“We’ve been working with simulated computer models based on theory and models of our detector for a long time. It will be very exciting to work with real data. We have a good idea of what we will see for the most part. What we’re looking for are small deviations from the expected... that will be the exciting part.”
The ATLAS project is using these proton-to-proton collisions to attempt to uncover the Higgs boson, the particle believed to be central to understanding the origin of mass in the universe.
|Jennifer Godfrey poses in front of a model of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.|
She travels there often as part of her graduate studies in particle physics.
The existence of the Higgs boson is hypothesized as a way of resolving inconsistencies in current theoretical physics. The collision of the protons through the LHC is releasing energy levels never before recorded. The resulting explosion tears the protons apart, giving scientists the opportunity to study them further.
“The standard model of physics, which is like a periodic table for physics, is well tested, but modern physics research indicates that it’s incomplete, or flawed,” says Jennifer. “For one thing, it doesn’t account for gravity. We are looking for theories to extend the standard model and explain the things that it can’t. The Higgs boson is looming behind the standard model, but we’re not completely sure if it exists. If it did, it would explain a lot.
“For example, one of the holes in the standard model is that it predicts massless particles. The Higgs mechanism gives mass to the particles. If we don’t find the Higgs, then the gaping hole due to the predicted massless particles remains. If we do find the Higgs, then that hole in our understanding is filled in.”
The internet abounds with discussions about the Higgs boson and why it matters. Some call it the God particle, a media-favoured term of which scientists like Jennifer aren’t fond as they feel it oversimplifies the concept.
Theoretical physicist John Ellis offered the following analogy in a National Geographic article by Joel Achenbach that gives a relatively easy-to-understand summary of the importance of the quest for Higgs:
“Ellis says that the Higgs field, in theory, is what gives fundamental particles mass. Different fundamental particles are like a crowd of people running through mud. Some particles, like quarks, have big boots that get covered with lots of mud; others, like electrons, have little shoes that barely gather any mud at all. Photons don't wear shoes — they just glide over the top of the mud without picking any up. And the Higgs field is the mud.”
The Higgs boson is presumed to be massive compared with most subatomic particles, notes Achenbach:
“But a jumbo particle like the Higgs would also be, like all oversize particles, unstable. It's not the kind of particle that sticks around in a manner that we can detect — in a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second it will decay into other particles. What the LHC can do is create a tiny, compact wad of energy from which a Higgs might spark into existence long enough and vivaciously enough to be recognized."
Jennifer’s connection to project comes through her work at SFU, which hosts one of Canada’s four data centres that collect and analyze ATLAS data along with other centres around the world.
Geneva and the world of particle physics is a long way from Abbotsford, especially for a young woman who dropped advanced placement physics in Grade 12 because she found it too difficult and who planned to major in her other love: English literature.
She didn’t give up on physics entirely, however. She tried again in first year at UFV, taking a course from George McGuire, who was legendary for his ability to inspire students.
“It was George who suggested that I ought to be pursuing physics as a major. It was the kind of encouragement I needed,” she recalls..
Throughout her undergraduate years she maintained a dual interest in literature and physics.
“There was many an English class where we had to introduce ourselves and I heard gasps when I said I was majoring in physics,” she recalls. In fact, she planned to become a high school English teacher when she first graduated from Rick Hansen secondary.
Jennifer can speak from experience when she compares the UFV environment to that of UBC and SFU: she attended all of them. After completing three quarters of her physics requirements at UFV, she switched to UBC so she could experience big campus life, test herself against students there, and prove that she was capable of getting good grades anywhere. She then wound up her undergrad experience by finishing her liberal arts requirements at SFU while she was working there as a research assistant for UFV geographer Dr. Olav Lian. All her courses transferred back to UFV, and thus she opted for a UFV degree credential.
“I enjoyed my time at all three universities — they’re all very different. The real advantage of UFV was the small group discussion style of our classes, with a focus on dialogue rather than lecture, and the research opportunities. It was more like grad studies than undergraduate. I was nervous about going to UBC because I thought that everyone would be smarter than me, but I found I was very well prepared academically at UFV. During the first weeks at UBC, students would ask questions during class and I’d wonder ‘how can you not know that?’”
Once she was done her bachelor’s degree, Jennifer applied for graduate studies almost on a whim, and was accepted at SFU. Once there she was drawn to the particle physics specialty.
She’s now immersed in her PhD research, which is fully entwined with the ATLAS project. Much of Jennifer’s day is spent poring over data and crunching numbers to do with the results from the project. But her forte is explaining physics to other people.
She recently returned to UFV on an NSERC-sponsored lecture about her work on the ATLAS project and particle physics in general. Speaking to an audience of science students who weren’t all physics majors, she used humour, PowerPoint, and analogies to explain the most esoteric problems of particle physics in an understandable way.
Jennifer hopes to leverage her talent for talking about science into a career. Exactly what form it might take is not yet clear. It may involve teaching at the college or university level, working in the field of science journalism or communication, or something as yet unanticipated.
“I love physics, teaching, speaking, and helping people, so I’m hoping to combine all those skills.”
Dr. Derek Harnett is a UFV physics professor who often guides students through the graduate school application process. He says that UFV has a strong track record for preparing physics students for grad studies.
“I don’t think we’ve had one student in the last five years who wanted to pursue graduate studies who didn’t get in. We’re thrilled that Jennifer is working on the ATLAS project, and the message it should be sending to current and potential UFV physics students is that if they’re interested in working on these types of projects, we can help put you in a very good position to be qualified to do so.”
Jennifer’s colleagues at SFU’s High Energy Physics group include master’s student Sara Kerkhoff, who earned her BSc at UFV in 2008, and PhD student Doug Schouten, who completed first-year engineering at UFV.